Rotting fish. The smell perfumed the air long before we were even close to the cormorant colony. I tried breathing through my mouth, but one can’t do this and talk at the same time. The sharp smell of ammonia stung my nose.
The cormorants cackled, sounding just like the demented people in my neighbourhood, busy screeching at ghostly enemies. Leslie Spit, officially called Tommy Thompson Park, has the largest colony of cormorants in North America. Some 25,000 of these birds have made a home for themselves along the peninsular coast. It’s a remarkable come-back for a bird that was on the edge of extinction in the 1970s due to poisoning from DDT pesticides.
Across the turquoise inlet the city shimmered in the afternoon light. The CN Tower, that white phallic icon of Toronto, poked the cloudless sky. All it took was a ten minute walk from the bus stop to leave the city behind. I was leading a 10 km hike for my outdoor club. It was a short and easy urban walk to while away a Sunday afternoon.
The cormorants were everywhere – on the ground, in the water and in the air. The trees were white nearest their colony. The leafless branches did not quiver in the breeze. Many cormorants were perched on the limbs, their outstretched wings drying in the sun and wind. They looked like vultures on a bare, gothic Christmas tree.
Cormorant poop is white and rich in ammonia. It is lethal to trees, and not a single one was alive near the colony. The quiet bleached tree were in stark contrast to the dark squawky birds perched on it. It looked like a simple pencil and paper sketch of black life and white death. The cormorants idea of paradise is a rocky island or cliff, covered in dead guano-coated trees with plenty of fresh fish in the water. It doesn’t look pretty and is stinky to us. But it works for them.
About the size of a chicken, with a long hooked beak, snake-like neck and too-big wings. Cormorants are definitely not cute and cuddly to the eye. They are clumsy on land. Under the water they are elegant and expert divers. Their webbed feet and those long wings enable them to fly fast through the water, quicker than their prey can swim.
Millions and millions of cormorants once bred in Canada. The birds and their eggs were a staple part of the diet of Indigenous people. The cormorant population shrank as settlers took over the shore for shipping and drained the marshes to create farm land.
Humans and cormorants both love fish and that has led to conflict between the species. Cormorants are smart and adaptable birds. They are just as good at fishing as sports fishermen and fish farm managers. Marinas and fish farms and are the closest man-made structures to the bird’s natural habit. It is far easier to blame the birds for ‘poaching’ fish than to look at how humans have altered the environment. Some people prefer to cull the cormorants through bullets, poison or oiled eggs.
The cormorants are seen as a nuisance, vermin or over-populated only when they compete with humans. There is space for cormorants, fish and humans on the lake. We have to learn that we are part of nature too, and need to share its bounty. As the top predator on the planet, it’s easy for humans to be arrogant and assume that we will always have that role, and can control the environment to our will. The dinosaurs probably thought that too.
Reaching the lighthouse at the tip of the spit, we paused for lunch. Then we turned around and headed back to our lives in the city. Some of us were going home to a dog, a couch or a bottle.